Democrats Seek to Tighten Oversight of Surveillance Methods

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Democratic lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to strengthen civil liberties protections against surveillance methods used in counterterrorism investigations, but senior Justice Department officials this week declined to endorse or reject their calls.

At hearings in the House and Senate, the officials repeatedly said they had no position yet on legislation that Democrats have introduced that would tighten standards and oversight of surveillance tools authorized under laws including the USA Patriot Act.

"We are trying to figure out whether the provisions that are suggested there will work for us as is, or perhaps with modifications," David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on whether to renew a trio of Patriot Act powers set to expire Dec. 31.

Those provisions allow investigators to use "roving wiretaps" to monitor suspects who may be trying to escape detection by switching cellphone numbers; obtain from third parties the business records of national security targets; and track "lone wolf" suspects who may not belong to a terrorist group but may be planning attacks.

Kris and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Todd Hinnen, who appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, said only that the administration supports extending the provisions set to expire in December.

But some Democrats see the debate as an opportunity to review domestic surveillance methods more broadly.

Among the most problematic provisions targeted by Democrats is one not due to expire. But Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine testified Wednesday that the national security letter -- a tool that lets FBI agents obtain phone, bank and other personal records from third parties without judicial approval -- has been subject to "serious misuse."

The Patriot Act, passed in late 2001, broadened the FBI's authority to use national security letters by lowering the standard for issuing them and by expanding the number of FBI officials who could sign them. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and two colleagues introduced a bill this week that would place a four-year expiration date on the letters' authority and tighten the standard for issuing them.

Under legislation introduced last week by Democratic Sens. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the FBI would also have to show that people whose records are sought have some connection to terrorism or espionage. Both bills would also, to varying degrees, strengthen requirements for the use of other surveillance tools.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Judiciary Committee, asked whether anything in the Leahy bill would impede a major ongoing investigation of terrorism suspects in New York and Colorado. Kris said that topic was best discussed "in a classified setting."

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